A look at the Oxford School Board races10/25/2021 10:48PM ● By Steven Hoffman
Voters have choices in every race in the Oxford Area School District. There is a seat being contested in each of the three school board regions, as well as an at-large position for a school board director.
During the primary elections, candidates for school board can cross-file on both the Republican and Democrat tickets. This year, voters tended to follow party lines, resulting in two candidates on the ballot for each opening.
Running for the position of school director at large are Republican candidate Jennifer Kehs and Democrat Sherri Matis-Mitchell.
Kehs, originally from the Pittsburgh area, has lived in Upper Oxford Township for the past 19 years, and has five children attend school in the Oxford Area School District, including the district’s Early College Academy. Her children’s success has been a motivation for her run for a seat on the school board. “I think it’s been a really good experience for my kids,” she said. “I want to be involved in what they are going to be learning, and ensuring they have these programs like the Early College Academy.”
Although this is her first time running for office, Kehs has been very involved in the community, particularly with youth. She has been a Girl Scout Leader and is Junior and Youth Program Leader at Russellville Grange. “My heart is in this for the kids, not for any political reason,” Kehs said. “I’m running on behalf of these young people who don’t have a voice.”
Kehs is a Penn State graduate with a degree in chemistry who works as a clinical researcher. She has 25 years of experience in the pharmaceuticals industry, plus a strong background in both science, business and organization. Kehs points to research that indicates masks as used at schools are ineffective as soon as they become wet, which can happen in just 15 minutes. She also noted that when masks are worn children are missing important facial cues.
“For me, I feel it’s perpetuating anxiety for these kids,” Kehs said. “I’m going to try to work to free students from that mandate.”
Kehs primary concern is quality education for students, with a focus on programs and curriculum. “I think what we should be presenting in our schools is excellence in education,” she said. “At the end of the day we should all be focused on education.”
Kehs does not support Critical Race Theory, which has not been implemented in the district, but is a subject of discussion across the state and the nation.
“I’m advocating for much of what the Oxford Area schools already are doing. I really like what they have in place as far as programs,” Kehs said.
Matis-Mitchell is a research data scientist who received her Ph.D in Molecular Immunology from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She has a keen interest in public health and studied virology with one of the members of the team that created the Salk polio vaccine. She worked on the applying Artificial Intelligence methodology as part of the Human Genome project and in the pharmaceutical R&D and has taught at a graduate level.
Now mostly retired, Matis-Mitchell now has time to participate in local politics. “It’s important to recognize everybody’s views, not just my own,” she said. “What’s important is what people are saying and to try to be unbiased and listen and come to some sort of common ground that benefits most people. I want to try to represent everybody and listen to what everybody says, and use my experience to provide what’s best for the students in the school district.”
Matis-Mitchell sees test scores as one of the main issues for the district.
“I think that there is a gap between where we are and where we should be,” she said. “We have smart kids. We need to give those kids a good foundation so they can go out and make good contributions to the rest of the world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be white collar.”
Matis-Mitchell favors a strong foundation studies in math, science and English. “I’d like to see our test scores go up. That’s a really good metric that we have. I would really like to see improvement made in STEM certainly,” she added.
Responding to families is also important to Matis-Mitchell. “I think that we could do a better job of listening to input from parents. I think any time a parent speaks we need to listen, but also follow through,” she said.
She also prioritizes school safety and finances. “People are concerned about their taxes being raised. That’s a valid concern,” she said. “People are not only concerned about their taxes being raised but also on the safety of their children and of the staff. Those are valid concerns.”
The issue of whether staff and students should be wearing masks falls under this category. “I realize the vaccine issue is polarizing, but it just makes good sense to provide a safe learning environment,” Matis-Mitchell said. "We need to strike a balance between keeping kids and staff safe while allowing responsible freedom to make an informed choice and to understand the impact and consequences of that choice in our community. Knowledge is not only power, it empowers informed decision making.”
In Region 1, composed of Upper Oxford, Lower Oxford East, and Oxford Borough East, incumbent Eric Owens won the democratic nomination while the Republican primary winner was Kristen Dean, who is currently serving on the school board as an at-large board member.
Owens is completing his first term on the school board. He is a professor and department chairperson in the Department of Counselor Education at West Chester University and also works part-time as a mental health therapist/licensed professional counselor. Owens was a high school counselor in Pittsburgh before moving to the Oxford area.
“I teach mental health and school counseling at West Chester within the College of Education and Social Work,” he explained. “I've worked with the PA Department of Education over the last decade on a number of different projects, as well as the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. I have also worked and consulted with school counselors, teachers, and administrators throughout the region and the state on issues related to mental health, school counseling, school funding, and trauma informed education.”
Owens added, “I've genuinely enjoyed my time on the board, and I think I've been able to bring my expertise in education and in mental health to the stakeholders in the Oxford Area School District. I'm particularly proud of helping to lead the district through the COVID-19 crisis, but also I'm proud of being able to work with administrators and local leaders to bring additional mental health services to our district.”
If re-elected, Owens lists his priorities as working with school leaders and teachers to explore how students can best recover what they may have lost during the pandemic; to continue to explore how students can access mental health and emotional health resources that are difficult to find in our area; find ways to lessen the tax burden on district taxpayers; and determine how to better support teachers.
Asked about the major issues facing the board, Owens began with the impact COVID-19 has had on education. “Our teachers have done an amazing job, but no amount of work was going to prevent our kids from falling behind. Our teachers have done the best they can, but we have much to do to catch up from last year,” he said.
He added, “I serve on the board because I genuinely and sincerely care about our kids, our community, and about public education. School board members are volunteers. I do this because I care deeply, really deeply, about public education, and about our kids and our community.”Dean and her husband Michael have lived in Oxford Borough for 14 years. She is currently serving her fourth year on the school board in an at-large position, but now she is running for a position as a Region 1 representative.
“I felt that, since I am very involved with the kids and families in my immediate neighborhood, it was a better fit for me to represent those constituents,” she explained. “I’m not sure how much it will affect how I represent, but it will affect where I place my time and attention while campaigning. Eric Owens and I have discussed having to run against each other and we know it’s less than ideal, but we both agree the upside is that a good school board member will represent Region 1.”
Dean graduated from Grove City College in 2000 with a degree in business management. She has been a job coach for a young lady with autism for 15 years.
“I have taken the last year and a half off in order to develop and run a free learning pod for some of the children in the Oxford Area School District,” she said. “These seven children, ranging in age from 7 to 16, have done amazingly well and it’s been one of the joys of my life to help them.”
Dean is involved in the community and has been a weekly volunteer at the Lighthouse Youth Center or the past 8 years. She has enjoyed her time on the school board. “I appreciate our board and I think each member genuinely aims to do what is best for the community, even if we don’t always agree on how to flesh that out,” she said. “I feel that I am able to make positive contributions, particularly from a financial standpoint. My analytical mind is able to understand the financial aspects of the position and I enjoy thinking through various scenarios to ensure we are being wise as we create our budget each year.”
When asked about issues facing the school board, Dean responded that a particularly important issue for the board involves parent and student confidence. “An increase in confidence will lead to a decrease in students switching to charter schools, which will result in decreased costs for the district,” she said. “There are many facets to this issue. Some of these include legislative reform, continuously evaluating and improving the curricular options for students, improving communication with stakeholders, and making sure students are thriving academically, socially and emotionally.”
Dean would like to continue to improve communication between the board and stakeholders, including financial issues. “I want to continually evaluate our budget to ensure we are spending in the wisest manner possible,” she said. “Something else that is very important to me is being a good steward of our resources. The people in our district work hard and we, as the board, must be wise as we spend this money. I do think we are on the right track as a district, but there is always room for improvement.”
In Region 2, composed of West Nottingham, Lower Oxford West and Oxford Borough West, William Kloss is on the Republican ticket, while Amy Jones is the Democratic nominee.
Jones is a graphic designer who graduated from Oxford. After attending Kutztown University, she and her husband, who is also an Oxford graduate, decided to stay in the Oxford area to raise their family. They have two sons, ages 6 and 9, who are students in the district. This is her first time seeking public office.
“I saw there was a need,” she said. “I am interested in education. I believe in public education strongly as it contributes to equality. When you have a good public education, I think you can do a lot with your life.”
Jones sees her experience in Oxford schools as a student and as a mother as her strongest qualifications for the school board. “That knowledge of going through the school district, that’s really helpful, and now that I have two children and they’re in the school district as well, I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a student both then and now. I know the things that I would like for my kids to have. I think I could help build toward opportunities for my children and all our children—my perspective would be valuable. I’m strongly invested in our school district and I want all of our children to succeed.”
Kloss served three years on the Octorara Area School Board until April 2020 when he moved from that district. He is now bringing his experience to his new district as a potential school board member.
“I was just starting to get a rhythm and understanding of the needs of a board member,” Kloss said. “I feel like there’s a lot of the things I learned in Octorara that I can apply in Oxford.”`Kloss is employed in marketing for Wawa and has an MBA from Delaware Valley College. He comes from a family closely involved in education and is very involved in his church, having served as a deacon at Penningtonville Presbyterian, and also served on the Atglen Borough Zoning Hearing Board.
The Klosses have been as a foster family for over four years, and have adopted three of their children from the program. “We have an understanding of children with special needs and those affected by trauma,” he said.
Five of Kloss’ six children are attending Oxford schools this school year, with a child in every building except the middle school.
On the issue of taxes, Kloss wants to address today’s needs while the district prepares for the future and future funding requirements.
Having school board experience, Kloss understands that it will take time as a new member to learn all the issues. “I want to make sure we’re aligned on correct priorities,” he said. “I want to know how I can work with this board and administration coming out of Covid to align with those needs and address them.”
As a board member in Octorara, Kloss was very involved with Career and Technical Education, as well as the OABest event. He also was involved with the board’s search committee that found the current superintendent, as well as several principals and other administrators.
In Region 3, which covers Elk and East Nottingham Townships, incumbent Jenifer Warren is the Democratic nominee and will be challenged Michael Blessington, the Republican nominee. Blessington is an insurance agent specializing in Medicare policies. The Blessingtons have been married 29 years and have two daughters adopted from China in 1997 and 2000. Both girls are graduates of the Oxford Area School District. Their success at Oxford is one of Blessington’s motivations for running for a position on the school board, where he hopes to maintain the high quality education offered by the school district. “I think the school district is excellent. Oxford is doing great,” he said.
Blessington was elected to the position of township auditor for East Nottingham in 2019 and has been a republican committeeman for over 10 years.
“I got involved because I felt local politics is where everything comes from,” he said. “I got involved years ago because I got tired of looking at the weak leadership and hoping I could make a change.
Now, Blessington hopes to serve the community through the school board. “I think I’m fair minded. I think I’m a reasonable person to deal with. I think I could help make some great decisions here in the future,” he said.
As someone who has been hospitalized due to COVID-19, Blessington remains opposed to masking requirements for students, and believes the decision to mask or not should be left to parents.
“A year of social distance and masking didn’t stop me from getting it,” he said. “Kids are not immune to it, but kids are stronger and they are not likely to end up in the hospital when they have it.”
Blessington is emphasizing a need for the students to return to normal as soon as possible. “I want them to be able to do their sports, I want them to be socialized,” he said.
Blessington sees a need for a school climate that supports education. “I’d like to get rid of some of the political correctness. Some of it is very good. We have to be polite to each other, we have to be nice to each other, we need to understand, we have to open up conversation. We can’t be 100 percent adversarial. That’s what I want to bring into high school education. I want the kids to feel free to speak their minds.”
He also supports a strong foundation for education. “I want the education to be fair and balanced, I want them learning our history. It’s a great history,” he said. “I think it’s an excellent school. They did a great job for my kids. I don’t want to see it change. I don’t want it going backwards.”Warren is running for a second term on the school board where she is currently in the position of vice president. She has work experience in libraries and supporting her husband’s engineering company as his office manager. She has lived in the Oxford area for the past 17 years and has two children who have attended the district schools.
“I’m a firm believer in public schools. They make the community stronger whether you have children in the district or not,” Warren said. “I have a good working relationship with all the current board members. I do feel like I’m making a difference, and that’s one of the reasons I ran—to make a difference in my community.”
One of Warren’s accomplishments while on the board that she is most proud of is the new superintendent evaluation system. Warren chaired the committee for revising the system.“We have redone the superintendent evaluation, the rubric, the evaluation tool and also the time line for the process. That was a suggestion I made to the board president about a year ago. Enough board members were frustrated with the tool we were using,” she said. “That’s something I’m most proud of.”
Warren sees the budget as one of the most challenging issues for the district. In recent years, the district fund balance was used to avoid raising taxes. “We have reached a point where that is not sustainable,” Warren said. “There are contracts that need to be honored and mandates that come down… we have to follow through on those, and charter school payments we have to make.”Warren recognizes that for some children charter schools may be the best choice, but others may not realize the quality and programs the Oxford Area School District has to offer. Related to finances, Warren would like to see fewer district students opting for charter schools. “I want to work to make sure people who live in the district understand what our education product is,” she said. “We need to see what can we do as a district to market ourselves and our product to those families.”
On the issue of masking, Warren believes the goal is keeping the children in school for in-person education and masks help achieve that. “To me, masking at this point is the best way to keep kids in school uninterrupted getting the best education,” she said.
Concerning CRT, Warren pointed out that the district superintendent has stated that it is not taught in the district and there is no intention to do so.
“Because it is complex graduate level theory, I do not think it is appropriate,” Warren said. “A K to 12 curriculum is not a place to put graduate level theory.”